By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence
“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”- Hubert H. Humphrey.
What happens when a government comes up against a threat so challenging, that it fails to protect the most vulnerable members of its society – the young, the old and the sick? Despite the challenges faced by governments such as France, Spain, the US and the UK in recent decades as a result of terrorism, the horrors of a group acting on a daily basis to terrorise civilians, such as Boko Haram, is outside of these countries’ experience. Deaths, kidnappings and destruction of property have become daily occurrences in Nigeria. The Nigerian government has had to deal with this formidable challenge, and has shown itself to be wanting.
Nigeria is not a failed state, nor is it currently experiencing a civil war – both of which are often factors making a state susceptible to insurgency and terrorist acts. Nigeria is a federal presidential republic, its government system based on the US model. Goodluck Jonathan served two terms as president (2007 to 2015), and was replaced in democratic elections by incumbent Muhammadu Buhari in March 2015.
The 2015 elections in Nigeria were not perfect, but they serves to emphasise that there is a move towards democratic and what has been termed ‘Western’ values in the country, although it is more accurate to say that they are the values of all free-thinking people around the world. But Nigeria’s embrace of those ideals, in a country that is far from comfortable in its relatively new democratic mantle, has opened it up to the reactionary group that is Boko Haram, and its government’s apparent inability to deal with the terrorist group is perpetuating a cycle of horror and despair that most of us barely register through our scan of the news over morning coffee.
The Nigerian government has, to date, been largely ineffective in dealing with the atrocities taking place inside its own borders, and it appears that the government is at a loss on how to eliminate Boko Haram, this despite some recent claims by the government that it has Boko Haram on the run. There is little evidence to support this claim that it is eliminating, or even reducing, the very real threat from this group.
Without a doubt, Boko Haram, founded in 2002 and whose name means “Western education is forbidden” is the biggest threat to stability in the country. Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to ISIS in 2014, and this international link has provided Boko Haram with both legitimacy and access to funding. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report, in 2014 Boko Haram overtook ISIL to “become the most deadly terrorist group in the world. Deaths attributed to Boko Haram increased by 317 per cent in 2014 to 6,644. ISIL was responsible for 6,073 terrorist[-related] deaths.” In addition to this significant number of deaths, about 2.3 million people are purported to have been displaced by Boko Haram’s activities. Unicef has reported that more than a million children have been forced from school.
In 2014 Boko Haram overtook ISIL to “become the most deadly terrorist group in the world.
In April 2014 the group came to the world’s attention following the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in the north-east of the country. Undoubtedly, the emotional and psychological terror evoked by mass kidnappings of young and vulnerable members of society can sometimes be a more powerful message and have equally devastating consequences as mass murders. Boko Haram continues to use kidnapping as one tactic among its arsenal, claiming that girls should not be educated and that Western education is wrong and not in keeping with their version of Sharia law.
Most governments are notoriously opaque when it comes to releasing information relating to security issues into the public sphere, or even sharing with other governments, and sometimes this is necessary and understandable. However, according to Dr Andrew Pocock, the British high commissioner in Nigeria, the Chibok girls have been located through satellite imagery. Nonetheless, no action has been taken as there were fears that any military action would be seen coming due to the location of the Boko Haram camps, and the girls would be killed before they could be rescued.
Further, there are indications that the girls have been split up into groups, and so the rescue would need to be highly coordinated. It seems that either there has not been an international appetite to do this, or, as has been reported on several occasions, the Nigerian government has not requested international assistance. A request for aid and support must come from the government in question before another state can intervene in a conflict or crisis. How much of the fault lies with the international community’s lack of appetite to intervene, or the Nigerian government’s reluctance to accept assistance is unclear. There have been failures on both sides.
How much of the fault lies with the international community’s lack of appetite to intervene, or the Nigerian government’s reluctance to accept assistance is unclear.
The result of the Nigerian government’s apparent ineffectualness is that, two years later, over 200 young girls remain in captivity, the only sign of life being a video that was released in December 2015 and allegedly showed some of the girls alive. It is largely believed that the video is credible. Perhaps more worrying, if anything can be said to be so, is the fact that several large kidnappings like the Chibok girls’ abduction had taken place, but more often than not they do not reach international news, or if they do, they are pushed to the proverbial back page. For example, 172 women and children were kidnapped in February 2015 from a village called Gumsuri and there has been little or no reporting on this.
Over the past few months, there have been reports that some progress has been made, and the Nigerian government has claimed that it has rescued about 1,000 abducted girls in January 2016 alone. However, when these girls are “rescued,” the vast majority of whom have been raped and abused, they are often ostracised by their own communities who fear that they have been brainwashed. People fear they will act as suicide bombers on behalf of Boko Haram. The government does not seem to have a plan in place for assisting these girls reintegrate into society, and the psychological impact of this failure will affect these children for the rest of their lives.
When these girls are “rescued,” the vast majority of whom have been raped and abused, they are often ostracised by their own communities who fear that they have been brainwashed.
The Nigerian government is, beyond any doubt, under fierce pressure from the most deadly terrorist organisation in the world, although without as wide a reach as that of ISIS. On one level, it may be appropriate to feel sympathy with the challenges it faces. However, until the government can act responsibly and secure the assistance it requires in order to protect its people, there will be no end to the brutality which is being experienced by the people of the country. And without appropriate trauma teams in place to assist those who have been released or who have escaped from captivity, a whole generation will have been wholly failed by their government.
This issue is not straight-forward, and it does not end with military action rescuing kidnappees. Schools have been turned into refugee camps across large swathes of the north of Nigeria where Boko Haram is most prevalent, depriving those in the camps and the students of the school access to an education. Successes in reducing the impact of Boko Haram are only the tip of the iceberg of what the Nigerian government needs to do to live up to its responsibility as a government. Unfortunately corruption within the Nigerian government, as well as an apparent inability to see the multi-faceted problem before it, is hampering efforts to deal with the horror unleashed by Boko Haram.
This issue is not straight-forward, and it does not end with military action rescuing kidnappees.
The Nigerian government is up against a ferocious adversary, and the challenges cannot be under-estimated. But one must wonder if it is pride and a desire to hide any weaknesses that prevents the government from asking for the assistance it so greatly needs and whether Nigeria will suffer for generations to come because of its inability to protect its people. All the while, the world spins on, and occasionally a new story makes it into the spotlight to remind us of our anger, and our impotence, at rescuing hundreds of women and children who were kidnapped for trying to better their lives through education.
Unfortunately, there is a perception that Nigeria’s struggle with Boko Haram does not currently impact us in the same way as ISIS does, or even Al Qaeda before it. Rather, it is consigned to the unfortunate number of things we cannot affect or control, in a far-off country. The Nigerian government needs to act for its people on the international stage, and make sure none of us forget the rights of the vulnerable again, no matter what part of the world they are from.
In a press release sated 4 July 2015, the Nigerian government said the following “Most wars, however furious or vicious, often end around the negotiation table. So, if Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it. . . Government will, however, not be negotiating from a position of weakness, but that of strength. . . . But I say again, if the insurgents want to negotiate, no decent government will be averse to such.” The problem is, will Boko Haram want to negotiate and if it does not, how will the Nigerian government resolve this crisis and protect the most vulnerable members of its society – the young, the old and the sick?
Feature image by Diariocritico de Venezuela of a 2014 Boko Haram bombing which killed 46 in central Nigeria.